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Joystiq Top 10 of 2012: ZombiU

Xav de Matos, @Xav

ZombiU had a lot stacked against it before it arrived. It's a launch game for a new Nintendo platform, from a company which famously over-promised and under-delivered with another launch game, Red Steel, for the Wii in 2006. It doesn't help that the Ubisoft Montpellier game is called ZombiU, a name that screams "bland, poorly-executed shovelware." But the survival-focused action of ZombiU does a lot to set itself apart from the horde of Wii U launch games: it features the most interesting use of the console's tablet-like controller, can be punishingly difficult, and returns the survival-horror genre to its roots of surviving on scraps and fearing for your life around every corner.

The premise of ZombiU is a simple, if not overused, one. An outbreak has turned the city – London this time – into a feeding ground for the undead. As you scour the city for the last remnants of weapons and supplies, you start uncovering the mystery surrounding the outbreak.

The real majesty of ZombiU is found within its moment-to-moment progression. There's an internal struggle that continues to boil forward throughout the game, leaving you to question when you should dig in to that valuable inventory. It may seem like a good idea to burn ammo on a small group of brain-munching monsters in one room, but what if the next area poses a greater threat? Could you survive with your trusty, slow-swinging cricket bat for now? Is it worth moving forward an inch now, only to be set back miles later? It's the fear of the unknown, and your potential death, that makes those moments so intense.

Gallery: ZombiU (Gamescom 2012) | 15 Photos

And death in ZombiU matters. If your character falls, they are in most cases transformed into a vicious zombie, while you start as a new survivor with no resources. If you're brazen enough to hunt your previous character's now zombified remains and kill them, however, you can reclaim your previous cache of items and weapons.

ZombiU best exemplifies the intelligent uses for the Wii U's control method. Scouring your inventory, examining the world for clues, or watching the map for notifications of danger never pause the action – it all takes place on the Wii U's GamePad. Using this device keeps your player frozen in a living world and forces your eyes away from the screen. Quick and intelligent planning here adds an interesting strategic element to the action, and makes resource management into a paralyzing bout of decision.

Preparation is key because ZombiU can be both unforgiving and brutally difficult. Rushing into any area without first examining your obstacles and organizing your thoughts will lead to immediate death – leading to yet another corpse run. Early in the game, I thought I had the mechanics behind survival down solid and refused to believe anything could stand in my way. No more than ten minutes later, an attacking horde at my safe house door killed me six times in a row. Things can go wrong very quickly if you lose respect for ZombiU's methodical pace.

ZombiU's combination of a dark, gritty atmosphere, great and jarring audio, and resource management, make it a surprisingly terrifying game to play. A scary survival-horror game! Remember when major publishers did that? Despite interjections by the last vestiges of humanity that send you on quests for items throughout the experience, there's a great sense of isolation out in the world. There's a calm stillness I found in rooms barren of any life (or, uh, un-life) that escapes like a flood the moment you hear the murmurs of a zombie in the distance.

It's understandable that fans of survival-horror franchises like Resident Evil or Dead Space have become disenchanted by the action-focused direction of the genre in recent years – ignoring, of course, the fantastic indie scene. ZombiU has a classic method of execution to its core survivalist conceit: it doesn't care whether or not you make it. It knows and wants you to die; in fact, one of its core online elements populates your world with other ZombiU players that have died, allowing you to pick off their corpses and loot their remains.

Ubisoft Montpellier was handed the unenviable task of crafting an original launch game and managed to craft a deep and rewarding experience. The developer has even managed to best Nintendo at proving the worth of its own second-screen controller. Ignore the awful title and the negative launch-game connotations, because ZombiU is one of the best games of 2012.

Joystiq is revealing its 10 favorite games of 2012 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups. The list so far:
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